Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Cartier's Part in the Confederation Movement


[This text was written by John BOYD in 1914. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]

The time has come to record Cartier's part in the confederation movement and to adjudge him his just dues in connection with that epoch-making measure. It is essential at the outset that Cartier's position at this period should be clearly understood. He was the dominant political force in his native province, and the large and devoted following which he possessed in the legislature of United Canada gave him a determining influence in the parliamentary arena. He had, as we have seen, persistently and successfully opposed all attempts to change the basis of the union, rightly maintaining that the concession of representa­ tion according to population would be fatal to Lower Canada 's interests. While Cartier was the steadfast upholder of Lower Canadian interests, George Brown stood forth as the champion of Upper Canada 's demands. Paradoxical as the statement may appear, it is nevertheless true that as far as natural temperament was concerned, there was much in common between George Etienne Cartier and George Brown. Each was the dominating political personality in his respective province, both were men of masterful force, indomitable energy and tenacity of purpose. Each, to a great extent, was the creature of his peculiar environment. Had Brown's environment been different and had he been in Cartier's position, he would no doubt have fought just as strongly for the interests of Lower Canada as he did for those of Upper Canada, and, had circum­ stances made Cartier the champion of Upper Canada's demands, he would have been as determined in supporting them as he was in defending Lower Canada's interests. It was Brown's habit to denounce what he termed French domination, and to level his attacks against the Roman Catholic Church for what he claimed was the undue political influence that it exercised. But it must have been apparent to him that whatever fault there might be was in the machinery of the union and not in any intentional design to work injustice.

The French-Canadian representatives in the legislature exercised a dominating influence, because under Cartier they were united, and it could hardly be expected that the Roman Catholic bishops and clergy in Lower Canada would view with complacency a movement which, if successful, would have been fatal to the interests of their people. Though Cartier and his following possessed a dominant influence in the legis­ lature, it could never be claimed that their dominance was used to work injustice to Upper Canada - the exact contrary, as John A. Macdonald himself acknowledged, was the case. Party politics of course had a share in the situation. While in Upper Canada it was represented that the government was under the heel of Lower Canada , the ground of attack in Lower Canada was that Cartier was far too British in his principles; that he was completely under the influence of John A. Macdonald, who in turn was governed by the Orangemen. But there was really nothing strange in this. It was simply the old game of party politics in which, as in love and war, everything is regarded as fair.

Cartier's course in opposing the demand for representation according to population as long as the political machinery of the union was main­tained was justified both by justice and expediency. Brown's bitter attacks on the French-Canadians and the Roman Catholic Church were utterly without justification. But at the same time it cannot be denied that apart altogether from his violent denunciations, which naturally had the effect of making him personally obnoxious to the people of Lower Canada , there was justice in Brown's demand that Upper Canada should have increased representation. The population of Upper Canada had increased much faster than that of Lower Canada , and at this period greatly exceeded the population of the sister province. Cartier was amongst the first to acknowledge the justice of Upper Canada 's demand for increased representation, but he differed from Brown as to the means to be employed to meet the situation. He had to see that while Upper Canada should obtain justice no injustice should be done to Lower Canada . The situation was critical. It was a time for the exercise of wisdom and of the highest statesmanship. George Brown, who in 1852 could hardly find a seconder for his motion in favour of represen­ tation by population, in 1860 claimed fifty-three members from Upper Canada elected to stand or fall by that measure? (1) But under the political machinery of the union representation according to population was obviously impracticable. The French-Canadians would with justice never have consented to a system which would have simply meant the annihilation of their political influence and which, as has been well observed, would have been "a species of terms dictated by a triumphant Protestant West to a defeated and humiliated Catholic East." (2) A more just and more equitable solution had to be offered and that solution was eventually found in the scheme of confederation. At this period Cartier held the key to the situation. The machinery of the union, designed by its authors to destroy the political influence of the French-Canadians, had signally failed in that object, and had now broken down as a means of governing the country. What a transformation from the early days of the union, from the regimes of Sydenham and of Metcalfe. Then the position of the French-Canadians seemed desperate, and their demands for a just share of political influence were ignored. Now the French-Canadian representation under Cartier's direction was all power­ ful, and it was to their sense of justice that the English members had to look for a redress of their constitutional grievances. This was freely admitted by George Brown himself, in a notable utterance in the Cana­ dian parliament : "The scene presented by this chamber at this moment," said the Upper Canadian statesman,

"I venture to affirm has few parallels in history. One hundred years have passed away since these provinces became by conquest part of the British Empire . I speak in no boastful spirit - I desire not for a moment to excite a painful thought - what was then the fortune of war of the brave French nation might have been ours on that well-fought field. I recall those olden times merely to mark the fact that here sit to-day the descendants of the victors and the vanquished in the fight of 1759, with all the differences of language, religion, civil law and social habit nearly as distinctly marked as they were a century ago. Here we sit to-day seeking amicably to find a remedy for constitutional evils and injustice complained of by the vanquished? No, sir, but complained of by the conquerors. Here sit the representatives of the British population claiming justice, only justice, and here sit the representatives of the French population discussing in the French tongue whether we shall have it."

It should never be forgotten by English-speaking Canadians that the appeal made to Cartier and his French-Canadian following for justice was not made in vain, to the representatives of a people who had themselves been denied justice when the union was inaugurated.

In the initial stages of the confederation movement there are three men who deserve special credit, and their names must ever be inseparably linked in the history of this period. They were Alexander Tilloch Galt, George Etienne Cartier and George Brown. In the subsequent stages John A. Macdonald, Charles Tupper and Leonard Tilley appear as con­ spicuous figures. Galt, as we have seen, had, at the parliamentary session of 1858, zealously advocated a union of the British North American provinces, and had been instrumental in having the idea made part of the programme enunciated by the Government of which Cartier was the head. Cartier and Galt, accompanied by John Ross, went to England and endeavoured to have the Imperial Government take the question up, but without success. The difficulty of conducting the government of the country under the existing political machinery yearly became more pronounced, until in 1864 a deadlock resulted. It was at this stage that George Brown by his patriotic course enabled a coalition govern­ment to be formed. The alliance of Cartier and Brown at this juncture was of supreme importance in its effects. Without Cartier, who had the largest personal following of any man in parliament at the time, the support of Quebec to the project could not have been secured, and without the support and co-operation of Brown and his adherents it would have been impossible for the Government to do anything in the direction of confederation.


Galt and Alexander Morris, who had also been an early advocate of Confederation, played a large and important part in bringing Brown, Macdonald and Cartier together, and in the negotiations which led up to the formation of the coalition Government. Despite the fact that they had been bitterly opposed to each other, Brown and Cartier seemed to have been at this period attracted to one another and to have become fast friends. We shall later find Cartier doing his utmost to induce Brown to reconsider his withdrawal from the Cabinet . (3)


The leading part played by Cartier and Brown in the Confederation movement has been emphasised by Sir Richard Cartwright, who was active in the parliamentary life of the period. "So far as confederation was the work of anybody," says Cartwright in his Memories of Confederation , "it was pretty nearly absolutely the work of a few leaders. [.]

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           It so happened that in 1863 and in 1864 there were two men in Ontario and Quebec who possessed a predominant if not an almost despotic influence over their respective provinces. One of these men was Mr. George Brown in the Province of Ontario , and the other was Mr., afterwards Sir George Cartier, in Quebec . They were both masterful men. They had been for many years bitterly opposed to each other. Nevertheless these two gentlemen had one thing in common, I am bound to say, looking back through the vista of two- or three-and-forty years, that they in their own respective ways, were both large minded, unselfish and patriotic men. At any rate one thing is certain, both of them for various reasons had a thorough and hearty detestation of anything th at promised to lead to absorption by the United States . Sir George Cartier thought that absorption by the United States would mean that the Province of Quebec would lose its nationality, and that it would lead to the creation of a state of things closely resembling that which exists in Louisiana to-day. Mr.Brown, although he was a staunch partisan of the United States in many ways, and although he had supported the North in the war to the uttermost, was equally devoted in maintaining British connection.

"Under the circumstances there was no step possible without the concurrence of these two men; nobody who knew anything as to the state of feeling in Ontario at the time but must know that I am strictly within the facts in saying that no project of confederation could have made any headway in Ontario without the active support of George Brown and of the Globe. No man I think will deny that things were very much in the same position in Quebec, and that without the active co-operation of Sir George Cartier very little headway could have been made in that direction. Both of these gentlemen were men of experience, men who had been engaged in politics for a long time, and both were thoroughly alarmed at the state of things then existing. The difficulty was to bring them together. . . . Fortunately amongst us there was at that time one man in particular who was eminently qualified to supply the element required. That man was the late Sir Alexander Galt, who, besides being a large-minded and brilliant man, was a natural born diplomat. Sir Alexander was fascinated by the project of confederation. He threw himself into it with all his energy and he succeeded in making a convert of Sir George Cartier. Mr. Brown was red-hot already; there­ fore I say without intending or wishing at all to detract from the work done by other able men in this connection, that to these three men, for good or evil, must be attributed the initiation of the project of con­ federation, and I repeat, and with knowledge, that at that time at any rate, without their concurrence, the confederation project would have been utterly impossible."

Whether it was on account of his dislike for George Brown, for whom personally he had no love, or that he feared an alliance between the Upper Canadian Conservatives and Liberals, as Cartwright avers, or that he was alarmed over the results of a union between Brown's follow­ ers and Cartier's compact party, John A. Macdonald was not at the outset particularly enthusiastic over Brown's overtures. We have seen that in the Constitutional Committee of 1864 Macdonald voted against the com­ mittee's report, because he did not like the wording of it. What he was strongly opposed to was the coupling of the idea of a federal union of the two Canadas with the larger project of a confederation of all the British North American colonies, which he favoured in his speech of 1860. It was perhaps not to be expected that Macdonald would view with much favour Brown's prominence in the movement. Neither, as I have said, was friendly to the other, and Macdonald, who was a great party leader, could hardly be expected to commit himself hastily to anything that would add to his political rival's prestige. Nor could he be expected to regard with much satisfaction the alliance between his colleague for many years, George Etienne Cartier, and his own great political rival, George Brown. Macdonald was an exceedingly cautious statesman, and he had to be convinced that a movement was likely to be a practical success before he would enter heartily into it even though he might theoretically believe in it. But once he was persuaded that confederation was called for by the existing conditions and that there was a chance of it succeeding and resulting in great benefits not only to the colonies but to the whole empire, he took the lead in supporting it with all his conspicuous ability and energy. He undoubtedly deserves the utmost credit for insisting at the outset of the negotiations upon the greater scheme of a union of all the British North American colonies in preference to the project of a federal union of the two Canadas . Cartier, Galt and Brown were chiefly instrumental in inaugurating the movement which resulted in confederation, but in Macdonald they all found a pilot who carried the great measure safely through the shoals and rocks of the sea of opposition to the secure haven of success. To keep the divergent elements of the coalition Government together required all the tact, resource and ability of John A. Macdonald, who was the real though not the titular head of the Government during all the negotiations which culminated in confederation.

In the memorable negotiations which resulted in the entrance of Brown into the ministry and the formation of the coalition Cabinet Cartier, as the record shows, played a conspicuous part. He was present at nearly all of the conferences which were held during the fateful days of June, 1864, and was zealous in support of a movement which offered an honourable solution of the existing constitutional difficulties. Both Cartier and Brown, who had hitherto been sectional leaders endeavouring primarily to promote the interests of their respective provinces, were now, while still seeking to safeguard those interests, to rise to the height of great national statesmen, with a broader vision and more extended interests. Brown generously acknowledged the predominant part played by Cartier at this critical juncture. "Long and earnestly did we fight for the justice we demanded," said Brown in his speech at the Halifax banquet to the Canadian delegates at the Charlottetown Conference, "but at last light broke in upon us. Parties were nearly equally balanced; the wheels of government had nearly ceased to move, a deadlock was almost inevitable, when Mr. Cartier, who wields great power in Lower Canada, boldly and manfully took the ground that this evil must be met and he would meet it. On this basis I and two political friends joined the administration and the existing coalition was formed, expressly for the purpose of settling justly and permanently the constitutional relations between Upper and Lower Canada ."

Cartier was bitterly attacked by some of his compatriots for consent­ ing to an alliance with George Brown, who was regarded in Lower Canada as the incarnate enemy of the French-Canadians and some of whose public deliverances went far to justify that opinion. But, under the circumstances, what other course was there open to Cartier? George Brown was at the time the dominating political force in Upper Canada as Cartier was in Lower Canada , and the future destinies of the country to a great extent were in the hands of those two masterful men. Cartier was perfectly justified in opposing Brown's demand for representation according to population under the union machinery, as such a change would have been inimical to French-Canadian interests, of which Cartier was the recognised guardian. But when Cartier saw that Brown was ready to consider the project of a federation, to have repulsed Brown's overtures and to have maintained an irreconcilable attitude would have been a suicidal policy both for Canada and for the French-Canadians. It was really providential that at this critical juncture these two masterful men with their divergent views and their different ideals were able to reach an understanding. Had Cartier sacrificed any of the interests of his compatriots he might have been held blameworthy. But not only did his alliance with George Brown not involve any sacrifice of his countrymen's interests, but it resulted in safeguarding those interests, whilst at the same time permitting justice to be done to Upper Canada and a confederation of all the provinces to be established.

When the coalition ministry was formed, and it was decided to send a delegation to Charlottetown to confer with the Maritime Province delegates on the question of a larger union, Cartier was one of the delegates named to undertake that mission. At the Charlottetown Con­ ference he united with Macdonald, Brown and the other Canadian dele­ gates in ably advocating the advantages of a union of all the British North American colonies. The proceedings of the conference were with closed doors, but Cartier's utterances at this time in the notable addresses he delivered at Charlottetown and Halifax clearly show that the scheme of confederation as it ultimately developed had already been fully elaborated in his mind, and that with statesmanlike prescience he fore­ saw the day when a united Canada would extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific, constituting a great sisterhood of provinces - a maritime as well as a land power. In an address which he delivered at a banquet tendered to the Canadian delegates at the close of the Charlottetown Conference the French-Canadian leader expressed the conviction that there would result from the negotiations a great confederation, which would redound to the benefit of all and the prejudice of none.

"As to the question of colonial union," said Cartier on this occasion,

"the convention having met with closed doors, I am not at liberty to say what took place, but I may be permitted to express my hope and confidence that there will result from our deliberations a great confederation which will be to the benefit of all and the disadvantage of none. The delegates met to consider if the provinces could not, by putting an end to their isolation, form a nation or a kingdom. Canada , however vast may be its territory, cannot alone form a nation; no more can the Maritime Provinces left to themselves be a kingdom. It is therefore necessary that the provinces should unite all their forces and all their resources to take rank among the most important countries of the world, by their commerce, their industry, public prosperity and national development."

It was at a banquet tendered to the Canadian delegates at Halifax and presided over by Dr. Tupper (now Sir Charles Tupper) that George Etienne Cartier made a notable address which showed that he had clearly seized the advantages offered by confederation, and that he foresaw the benefits that would result from the union of all the provinces.

"I must at once thank you for this imposing demonstration in honour of the Canadian delegates," said Cartier, addressing the large and distinguished gathering. "We have just come from a conference which kept its deliberations up to a certain point secret. What cannot be ignored, however, is that we discussed this question - cannot we find the means of reuniting the great national units which constitute the British North American provinces, and to make of them a great nation, or shall we continue to be separate provinces, having, it is true, the same noble and gracious Sovereign, but divided politically? Everybody knows that this division necessarily implies a certain amount of weakness, and everybody must feel that if all the provinces have a general or common government, they will thus become a more important portion of the British empire . As I have submitted it to you the question is of the highest importance. Did the delegates show presumption in discussing it? I do not think so; I believe that the conference was very opportune, and I think it was held at a favourable time. When we consider that Canada has a population of 3,000,000, Nova Scotia 350,000, New Brunswick nearly 300,000, and Prince Edward Island nearly 100,000 making a population of over 3,500,000 it is easy to see that we possess the first of those elements requisite to make a nation. If we next examine the territory occupied by these provinces, we will find another element required for the foundation of a great state.
We have in Canada , it is true, the two principal elements of nationality - population and territory - but we also know what we lack. Great as is our population and our territory, there is wanting that other element absolutely necessary to make a powerful nation, the maritime element. What nation has ever been powerful without the maritime element? It was long said that the sea was a barrier to progress of a people. I know that they called the English "insular", but that did not prevent them becoming the first power of Europe . Austria is great in territory and population - I may say the same of Prussia and other countries - but these nations are restricted in their actions, because they have not the sea. Whilst in Canada we know that we have a large population, and that it has settled sufficient territory to merit an honourable rank beside many a European nation, we wish to acquire still greater importance, which can only be accomplished by your uniting with us. You must not forget on your part that though the Maritime Provinces are situated on the seacoast, they will never be more than a string of hills and a seacoast if they refuse to join us. We have for you too much friendship, too much consideration to permit of such a thing. We can form a vigorous confederation whilst leaving the provincial governments to regulate local affairs. There are no obstacles which human wisdom cannot overcome. All that is needed to triumph is a strong will and a noble ambition. When I think of the great nation we could constitute if all the provinces were organised under a single government, I seem to see arise a great Anglo-American power. The provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia represent the arms of the national body embracing the commerce of the Atlantic . No other will furnish a finer head to this giant body than Prince Edward Island , and Canada will be the trunk of this immense creation. The two Canadas extending far westward will bring into confederation a vast portion of the western territory.
When we possess a federal government, one of the most important questions to settle will be that of the defence of the country. As we are, we have the wish and the determination to defend ourselves, if attacked, but can we defend ourselves with success? Look at each province in turn, Prince Edward Island , Nova Scotia , New Brunswick and the two great Canadas . Can they defend themselves or aid Great Britain to defend them as long as they will be separated or disjointed? No. But if united? Their militia will furnish at least 200,000 men, and if we have the 60,000 marines which the two Canadas and the Maritime Provinces possess and the navy of Great Britain what nation would be foolish enough to attack us?
Since my arrival in Halifax I have heard the objection made that you would be exposed to absorption in the union. It will be easy for me to dissipate your fears. I will reply by a question - have you not refused to be absorbed through commerce? Thanks to the Intercolonial Railway, Halifax will be benefited by that which now enriches Portland , Boston and New York . If you do not wish to do all in you power to aid us in accomplishing a great work, you will force us to divert to the United States all the trade which should belong to you. Will the people of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia be in a better position if they drive away this trade - this source of boundless prosperity? It is manifest that when the Intercolonial will be built - and that must necessarily result with confederation   - there must be almost daily streamers leaving for Liverpool and returning; in fact these two great cities will be in continuous communication. Besides large numbers of travellers will come to visit your seacoast cities.
Let me also remove another prejudice which has taken possession of some, who believe that if confederation takes place the tie which binds us to Great Britain will be weakened. I believe it will be the contrary that will result. I represent the province whose people are monarchical, by religion, by customs, and by traditions of the past. Our wish in endeavouring to obtain a confederation of the provinces is not to weaken monarchical institutions, but to strengthen them, and to increase their influence. We believe that when confederation is accomplished, it will become a vice-royalty, governed, we have the right to hope, by a member of the Royal family.
I believe that the situation is very well understood in Great Britain . Every one familiar with public opinion knows that the dominant question is that of defence. I may say at once that I detest the school of Bright , Cobden and Company. All this indifference to the colonies only exists amongst a certain number of politicians, but in any case it is incumbent upon us to remove all causes of complaint which this school may have against the colonial system. If we can organise our militia in such a manner as to convince Great Britain that in the event of difficulty we can aid her, believe me, that school will not last long.

You need not be afraid of us because we come from Canada , and because that country exceeds yours in population and extent. Do not be afraid of us, do not reject our proposals, do not answer us with the words of the Latin poet, Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes . The promises which we make you are sincere and loyal, and in asking union we wish your welfare as well as our own."

It was at the historic Quebec Conference that George Etienne Cartier was called upon to play the most important role of his political career. There were assembled thirty-three of the most distinguished statesmen of British North America . Though the conference was presided over by a French-Canadian in the person of Sir Etienne Pascal Tach é, and though Cartier in upholding the interests of Lower Canada had the able support of his two colleagues in the Government, Hector Louis Langevin, who was destined to be his successor, and Jean Charles Chapais, Cartier was really the master mind of the Lower Canada delegation. And what a   momentous responsibility rested upon his shoulders. It was for him to see that the interests of his compatriots were safeguarded, that their rights, institutions, nationality, in short everything that cherished most, should be secured under the proposed union. That Cartier played a most important part in the negotiations leading up to the Quebec Conference and in the conference itself is indisputable, though, strange to say, it is not apparent from the official minutes of the proceedings. It is regrettable that more exhaustive minutes were not kept of this historic conference. In the preface to the Confederation Papers the editor well remarks that the drafts of the minutes "are meagre," and the record of the discussions is "obviously deficient and in places fragmentary." In carefully reading over the minutes I find that Cartier is mentioned but once as having taken part in the discussions of the conference, namely, in the report of the proceedings of Thursday, October 20 th . During a discussion in regard to the constitutions of the new provinces George Brown expressed the view that the provincial machinery should be as simple and democratic as possible; and professed his preference for a single chamber elected every three years. At this point Cartier remarked; "I entirely differ with Mr. Brown. It introduces in our local legislatures republican institutions." This at least is interesting as revealing Cartier's preference in regard to provincial institutions, a preference which he further exhibited by eventually having two chambers instead of one for the province of Quebec . I also find Cartier mentioned as having presided in the absence of the chairman Sir Etienne Taché, at the closing meeting of the delegates, which was held at the St. Lawrence Hall, Montreal , on Saturday, October 29 th , when the final report of the Quebec Conference was adopted. The fact that these are the only two instances in which Cartier's name is mentioned in the official minutes of the Quebec Conference clearly shows how defective the record is, and in addition we have the assurance of Sir Charles Tupper, the sole survivor of the historic conference, that Cartier was one of the leading spirits in that gathering and that he took a most active part in all the discussions, his legal and constitutional knowledge being of the utmost value. Undoubtedly many of the clauses of the British North American Act owe their form to him.

Cartier's master-stroke in all the negotiations that eventually resulted in confederation was the securing of the federal form for the new constitution, instead of a legislative union, which would have meant the swamping of French-Canadians interests. From the very outset Cartier insisted that confederation should be established on the federal principle, and the triumph of that idea, which assured the success of confederation was due to him. John A. Macdonald, as well as other delegates, favoured a legislative union with a single government for the whole country. Macdonald at a subsequent stage frankly acknowledges that he had favoured a legislative union. "Now as regards the comparative advantages of a legislative and federal union," said the Upper Canadian leader,

"I have never hesitated to state my own opinion. I have again and again stated in the House that, if practicable, I thought a legislative union would be preferable. I have always contended that is we could agree to have one government and one parliament, legislating for the whole of these peoples, it would be the best, the cheapest, the most vigorous and the strongest system of government we could adopt. But on looking at the subject in the conference, and discussing the matter as we did most unreservedly, and with a desire to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, we found that such a system was impracticable. In the first place, it would not meet the assent of the people of Lower Canada because they felt that in their peculiar position, being in a minority, with a different language, nationality and religion from the majority, in the case of a junction with the other provinces, their institutions and their laws might be assailed, and their ancestral associations, on which they prided themselves, attacked and prejudiced, it was found that any proposition which involved the absorption of the individuality of Lower Canada - if I may use the expression - would not be received with favour by her people. We found, too, that though their people speak the same language and enjoy the same system of law as the people of Upper Canada - a system founded on the common law of England - there was as great a disinclination on the part of the various Maritime Provinces to lose their individuality as separate political organisations as we observed in the case of Lower Canada herself. Therefore we were forced to the conclusion that we must either abandon the idea of union altogether or devise a system of union by which the separate provincial organisation would be in some degree preserved. So that those who were, like myself, in favour of a legislative union were obliged to modify their views and accept the project of a federal union as the only scheme practicable even for the Maritime Provinces."

Macdonald's declaration is clear and precise. That he and those like him who favoured a legislative union were obliged to modify their views and accept the project of a federal union was due in great measure to Cartier, who, by having the federal system adopted, prevented the absorption of the individuality of Lower Canada, to use Macdonald's very expression. All attempts to remove questions involving the individuality of Lower Canada , such as the question of education, Cartier firmly opposed. To the federal government he was willing that all questions affecting the common material welfare of the provinces should be committed, but he insisted that all matters directly concerning Lower Canada should be left to its own legislature.

Cartier at this time in the fiftieth year of his age, was in the full vigour of his prime and his legal and constitutional training and his long experience in public affairs eminently qualified him to accomplish the great task that had devolved upon him. The existing political situation could clearly not continue. The safeguarding of French-Canadian rights and interests consisted in the equality of representation that prevailed in the legislature, but with the continued increase of population in Upper Canada , increased representation to the latter would have had to be conceded and this would have meant the extinction of Lower Canada 's political influence. It would have been nothing short of what was desired by many, a legislative union under which the French-Canadian influence would have become a nullity. What was to be done in order to maintain Lower Canada 's individuality and preserve French-Canadian influence? Cartier clearly foresaw that the only salvation for Lower Canada under the circumstances was to obtain a federal union under which the interests common to the whole country would be left to a general government, whilst what the French-Canadians cherished most dearly would be under the control of their own legislature. He realised that Upper Canada's demand for representation according to population, just in itself, though unsuited for application as a governing principle as between the two provinces, would not involve the same objection if other provinces were drawn in be a federation. Hence his strong support of confederation in a federal form, which, while permitting the establishment of a great North American commonwealth in which the French-Canadians could take their part, would at the same time safeguard the individuality of Lower Canada. To permit of the first object he was agreeable that there should be mutual concession, but he was as firm as adamant up to the very moment that confederation was achieved in insisting that there should be no compromise where the great interests of his compatriots were at stake. The making of Quebec the pivot in the apportionment of representation in the Federal parliament was another triumph of Cartier's foresight, as the fixing of Quebec 's representation at a stationary figure assured the maintenance for all time of the uniform French-Canadian representation in the general parliament.  

The labour and responsibility that devolved upon Cartier at the Quebec Conference were tremendous, and no doubt proved a severe strain upon his constitution, strong and robust though it was at this period. He had the satisfaction of seeing his efforts crowned with success, and the confederation measure as it came from the Quebec Conference bears the impress of his strong personality.

It was with a justifiable note of pride that at a great banquet given on October 28 th by the citizens of Montreal to the delegates to the Quebec Conference, Cartier referred to the result of his labours at that historic gathering. He also took advantage of the opportunity to justify his alliance with George Brown. "Without being indiscreet I would say at the outset," he remarked,

"what all the world knows, that I am now allied with Hon. George Brown, with whom I have been in a state of almost continual antagonism for nearly fifteen years. Up to the present in all great questions of public interest we have always been opposed to each other, always at war, he in the name of Upper Canada and myself in the name of Lower Canada . This war became interminable, without profit to anybody, when one day we tried to arrive at an understanding on this great project of confederation, to unite under one government the British North American provinces. In making an alliance with Mr. Brown I took the advice neither of my compatriots nor of my political career I never consulted anybody. I wish to say in speaking of my alliance with Mr. Brown, that he has faithfully kept his word under all circumstances since the formation of the coalition. What Mr. Brown thinks of me I ignore, besides I have sufficiently good opinion of myself to concern myself very little with what is thought of my personality" (laughter).

Referring to the project as decided upon at the Quebec Conference, Cartier dwelt on the importance of the provision that matters of common interest should be committed to the general government, and subjects of local concern to the local legislatures. He emphasised that what was desired was that justice should be done in all interests. "If we present to the legislatures of the provinces and the Imperial Government, " he said,  

"a project carrying with it the creation of a general government, it will be our duty equally to protect all races and to safeguard the interests of each of them. If we succeed we will have done much. I am told that in Lower Canada there exists a strong opposition to this project because the English-speaking population will find itself at the mercy of the French population. Why, I answer, should the English born in Lower Canada yield to such arguments? Let them reflect that if the French have a majority in the provincial government they will in their turn be in a large minority in the federal government. The French population in confiding their interests to a federal government give proof of confidence in our English fellow countrymen. Is it too much to ask the English that they should rely on the liberality and the spirit of justice of the French race in the local government? To whom will be committed the most important interests for the two populations of Lower Canada ? Will it be to the federal or the local government? For my part I am ready to openly admit to-day that the prosperity of the two Canadas is principally due to the spirit of enterprise of the English race. But why should they oppose the establishment of a provincial government where the French-Canadians will be represented in accordance with their numbers? In any case I do not hesitate to proclaim that I will never suffer, as long as I am a minister of the Crown, an injustice being done under the constitution or otherwise, to my countrymen whether English or Catholics.   I will never permit that my compatriots, the French-Canadians, shall be unjustly treated, because they belong to a different race and religion from the people of Upper Canada ."

"In reply to the objections raised by the extreme French-Canadian party, and the annexationist or American Party," added Cartier,

"I will say that if the present movement succeeds there will be a central government, whose attributions will embrace all general interests, and local governments to which will be committed provincial affairs and properties. Under the new system Lower Canada will have its local government and almost as much legislative power as formerly."

I desire to say that I am of the opinion concluded the Lower Canadian leader, "that this confederation could not be realised if it should tend to destroy or even to weaken the bond which attaches us to Great Britain . I am for confederation because I believe that the establishment of a general government will give even greater force to that tie, which is dear to us all."

Thus did Cartier justify his support of the great scheme of confederation. But his course was not to be all clear sailing. The mutterings of a storm which had been brewing in his native province could clearly be heard and its thunder was soon to resound through the chambers of parliament and the counties of Lower Canada.

(1) John LEWIS, George Brown , in Makers of Canada , p. 142.

(2) Prof. J. L. MORRISON, "Parties and Politics", in Canada , Vol. V.

(3) "In the events which followed the Government defeat of June 14 th , 1864, it is hard, perhaps unnecessary, to allocate the honours, for all concerned acted as true-hearted Canadian patriots - Morris and Galt, in negotiating for the meeting; Brown, in consenting to what was the most heroic act of self-restraint and of patriotic moderation in his career; Macdonald and Cartier, for seeing clearly the exact terms on which the coalition should be made, and for proclaiming confederation as the one true goal for Canadians". - Prof. J. L. Morrison, "Parties and Politics, 1840-1867", in Canada and Its Provinces.

Source: John BOYD, Sir George Etienne Cartier, Bart.: His Life and Times , Toronto, Macmillan Co. of Canada, Ltd., 1914, pp.195-209. Text transcribed by Jessica Drury. Revision by Claude Bélanger.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College